Iceland Mag

10 Reykjavik

Iceland Mag

Lifestyle

The small expert watchmakers in downtown Reykjavík

By Agnes Valdimarsdóttir

  • The watchmaker "To me this is not just my job, but also my hobby and on Sunday nights I look forward to coming into work on Monday morning," says Gilbert Guðjónsson.

“If my shop doesn’t serve as the smallest watch manufacturer in the world, then surely, I’d fit the description as one”, says Gilbert úrsmiður (e. Gilbert the watchmaker) and chuckles. What Gilbert Guðjónsson lacks in height, however, he more than makes up for in talent.

Gilbert has been a watchmaker in Reykjavik for 48 years and is a household name in most families across the greater Reykjavik area. His small shop on Laugavegur attracts big names and has gained him fans around the world. “I guess it’s nice that people are talking about my work outside of Iceland, but I don’t know that I’d consider myself to be famous”, says Gilbert when probed. “I thoroughly enjoy what I do – to me this is not just my job, but also my hobby and on Sunday nights I look forward to coming into work on Monday morning. That’s a real privilege.” 

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Frank Michelsen A third generation watchmaker. Photo/Stefán Karlsson

Creating watches
While Gilbert is a world-renowned watchmaker, he’s not the only Icelander making a name for himself by creating watches. A third generation watchmaker, Frank Úlfar Michelsen, is the owner of Michelsen watches, also in Reykjavík. Michelsen, the shop, is also the only store in Iceland where one can buy a Rolex watch. 

All the Rolexes are serviced by Frank at their workspace right above the storefront in Reykjavik. His son, a fourth generation watchmaker living and working in the Mecca of watchmaking, Switzerland, only spends his vacation time in Iceland assisting his father in putting together Michelsen watches and servicing Rolexes. Frank proudly tells me that his son, Róbert, has recently been hired at Urban Jörgensen in Switzerland, a dynasty of Danish watchmakers that are “continuators of an uninterrupted production since 1773.” Watchmakers at Urban Jörgensen spend days and weeks putting together each watch with immaculate perfection which explains why the output is limited. Iceland’s local watchmakers, however, take anywhere between one hour and a full day bringing their watch from multiple miniscule pieces into a working timepiece.

Designed and assembled in Iceland
“Iceland is too small, we don’t have the technology to make the watches locally, but we design them and then have them manufactured in Switzerland,” says Frank. The Michelsen’s buy the mechanics of their watches and then refine them themselves either in Switzerland, where Róbert is living and working, or at their store in Reykjavik. “The clockwork of our watches is ready-made by the time they're delivered to us, but we put on the final touches: putting all the parts together, adding the glass, and the hour and minute hands. We also refine the clockwork and put our design on it. We want to make sure that what we’re selling is something we’re proud to put our name on.” 

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JS Watch by Gilbert 

The Frisland Goð Special Edition watch has a 42 mm diameter steel case and a face made of ash from Eyjafjallajökull volcano.

Attention to detail is important for watchmakers. “If we get our parts back from Germany or Switzerland and they don’t look like they’re supposed to, it’s because we’ve made mistakes – not somebody else,” says Gilbert. His shop sends drawings of every part of the watch to factories in mainland Europe and they are adamant that every piece comes back perfect. “We choose the material for the strap, what’s inside the strap, and even the colour and material of the twig used to sew the strap together. It’s really important to us that everything is 100% perfect since we’re such a small company”, says Gilbert.

Smart watches may be fun, but they don’t have soul
Gilbert and Frank are not worried about smart-watches taking over their businesses.

“The technology makes owning a smart watch fun, it’s just another toy to play with, but I’m not too interested in smart-watches. I want a watch with a soul; you can hear the tick-tock and you know it’s working. And you don’t need to be constantly charging an ‘old fashioned’ watch,” says Gilbert, adding: “The people who come here to buy a watch, many of whom are watch collectors, are not interested in some smart-watch - to them, it's a computer, not a real watch. Collectors may want a smart-watch, but they’ll want that in addition to a fine piece of a traditional mechanic watch”, says Gilbert.

And he may be right. Technology is certainly a good thing and something most people can enjoy, but it doesn’t replace a fine piece of jewelry such as a handmade watch.

Frank Úlfar agrees with Gilbert, saying that whilst “the opinions of the value of smart-watches are as varied as the number of watchmakers across the world,” he doubts that a smart-watch will ruin his career.

His son, Róbert, adds that whilst a smart-watch “may change the landscape of the market, it is not replacing traditional watches”.

 

 

 

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